Measure was inspired by abduction, murder of Ashlynne Mike

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FARMINGTON — Federal legislation to expand the Amber Alert system to tribes passed the U.S. Senate by unanimous consent this week.

The bill, which passed late Wednesday, modifies a U.S. Department of Justice program to make tribes eligible for grants to set up the child-abduction notification system.

It also permits the use of grant funds to integrate state or regional Amber Alert communication plans with tribes and allows the waiver of the matching funds requirement for grants awarded to tribes.

U.S. Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., introduced the bill this year in response to the abduction and murder of Ashlynne Mike. The 11-year-old and her 9-year-old brother, Ian Mike, were kidnapped from near their home in the San Juan Chapter on May 2, 2016.

Ian Mike was found later walking alongside a highway near the Shiprock pinnacle, but an Amber Alert for his sister was not issued until early morning on May 3, 2016.

Tom Begaye Jr., of Waterflow, was arrested on May 4, 2016, on a criminal complaint charging him with kidnapping and murdering Ashlynne Mike. He pleaded guilty in federal court in October as part of a plea agreement to six charges and was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of release.

"In that high-profile case, authorities did not issue an Amber Alert for Ashlynne until the day after family members reported her abduction," McCain said in a press release from his office.

The senator added that FBI statistics show that more than 7,500 Native American children are listed as missing in the United States, and the legislation is an important step in protecting "the most vulnerable individuals in Indian Country."

The Navajo Nation received federal grants in 2007 and in 2011 to implement the Amber Alert system on the reservation, but the project remained incomplete.

The tribe issued its support for McCain's bill in July.

U.S. senators Tom Udall, D-N.M., and Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., are among the bill's cosponsors.

"The Amber Alert system has proven to be an effective tool throughout the U.S. in combating child abductions, and we must ensure that tribes are on a level playing field when it comes to providing these basic services," Udall said in a press release from his office.

The bill was referred to the U.S. House Committee on the Judiciary on Thursday, according to Congress.gov.

In a statement, Heitkamp encouraged House members to pass the measure as soon as possible so President Donald Trump can sign it into law.

Navajo Nation Council Delegate Amber Kanazbah Crotty serves as chairwoman for the Navajo Sexual Assault Prevention Subcommittee.

"I appreciate this bipartisan support for protecting our children," she said.

Crotty said Ashlynne Mike's mother, Pamela Foster, has been advocating for the bill's passage, and efforts continue to educate federal lawmakers about the measure.

On Thursday, the subcommittee received a report from the Navajo Department of Emergency Management about the Amber Alert system, and personnel indicated the department is in the final process of purchasing software for the notification system, Crotty said.

Noel Lyn Smith covers the Navajo Nation for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4636 and by email at nsmith@daily-times.com.

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